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Pentagon's Advice to Traumatized Veterans: Think Happy Thoughts!

Hey, all you quitters and whiners: If it’s bad and it hurts, you have to try harder, have faith, and above all, think positive!

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The training helps soldiers “look at more optimistic and realistic choices, rather than falling into negative thought processes,” says CSF director Brig. Gen. Rhonda Cornum.

The example Seligman frequently uses to illustrate how his training helps training soldiers avoid falling into negativity goes like this:

So you’re in Iraq, for example, and you call your wife at home,…and she doesn't answer, you might think the most catastrophic thing possible: She's walked out on me.

So one of the things you teach people to do is, well, just wait a minute. That's the most catastrophic possibility. Now, what's the best possible scenario? Well, it might be that she's just taken the kids out for a walk…

So resilience begins by teaching soldiers, just as we have taught thousands of people, to recognize the most catastrophic things they say to themselves when bad events occur and to dispute them, to find the realistic causes of the bad events.

Oh, now wait just a minute, Doc. There are real unpleasant realities out there, and some of them are really dangerous to ignore. And they couldn’t care less if you are an optimist or a pessimist.  

Like the Taliban. Or Katrina. Or the housing bubble.  Or the wisdom of Wall Street. Or cancer.  

And try to imagine how useful a habit of sunny optimism might be to a soldier doing house checks in Kandahar.

“See it positively, as a ‘growth opportunity,’" snarls Ehrenriech at the directive.  “And hopefully not just for the tumor.”

Or as Dr. Richard Tedeschi, a UNC psychologist and also a consultant on the CFS project, told a gathering at the conservative American Enterprise Institute in September, even those who had lost limbs or incurred other severe physical injuries found the changes in their lives to be so intensely meaningful that “they were glad the events had happened to them.” 

Ehrenreich experienced no such epiphany. Breast cancer did not, she reports, make her “prettier or stronger, more feminine or spiritual.   

“What it gave me, if you want to call this a “gift,” was a very personal and agonizing encounter with an ideological force in American culture…that encourages us to deny reality, submit cheerfully to misfortune, and blame only ourselves for our fate.”

That’s what Seligman sold the Army.  He's going to teach soldiers to use their psychic injuries as opportunities for growth, not as excuses for a disability claim.  And especially not as a motive for suicide.

But according to David Rosenthal, Director of Behavioral Science at Columbia University, “As with any approach, there is always the danger that if people don’t do well, someone in power will say that they are not utilizing the skills provided them and they are to blame.” 

So read between the lines.

Gen. George W. Casey Jr., Army chief of staff, complains that soldiers are "not coming into the service with the coping skills they need.”  (Never mind who is at fault for letting them in.)

And whose fault is it if they fail to learn?  What if it can’t be taught?  What if the contents of the tool kit are no more than a cruel hoax? 

Seligman’s colleague at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, Dr. James Coyne, is only one among many experts who say positive psychology is “an emotionally charged belief that is pretty resistant to science.   

"There is little new about the training that is effective, and little effective that is new,” Coyne wrote in a personal e-mail. “The core of the program is basic stress management techniques that are used in other settings with modest effects. 

 
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